Neil Michael Hagerty’s more unruly work with Royal Trux in the 80s and 90s shows that he is deep in arrears by the standards of critical ‘adequacy.’ So what do you do when you’re deep in debt and there’s nothing to be done about it? You fuck about and have a good time. Hagerty is like Newton, playing with syringes and his own eyeballs/eardrums so we don’t have to. When he extracts certain elements of a song or overdoes it on others, we, the listener, are shown the ropes of rock ’n’ roll: what works and what just bombs. To borrow the tone of the great Matt Weir: “Put that gunpowder away Neil… Neil… BOOM!” (“Oh well, at least we know now to avoid that gunpowder.”)
This time, on Wilson Semiconductors’ four long songs, Hagerty has gotten rid of the drums and other Howling Hex members. It’s primarily just himself and a couple of guitars out in the desert, using fairly rudimentary recording equipment. Proceedings get underway with some strange ruminations on “Reception,” delivered in unusually straight-laced tones (not the typical throwaway R&B rawk that we’ve come to expect from Hagerty as a vocalist). Subsequently, he shows that it is possible to achieve a lot without drums on a Tex/Mex record like this, if you play and sing as if you’re jamming on the porch and let the bass act as a backyard generator to power your experiments. However, he also demonstrates how to bore his listeners by extending the welcome of that Postman Pat country bassline for longer than your average dead-end career in the civil service lasts.
On Wilson Semiconductors’ last track, we hear almost nothing for five or ten minutes, except for that same repetitive bassline and brief staccato strum, simply marking time, or so it seems, while someone heads indoors to make themselves a cup of coffee. There are similarities with the laissez-faire moments of Black Francis on “Play This When You Feel Low,” which relies on the same strummed steel guitars and inquisitive, deranged-sounding sequences of notes that Black would let fall during the tumbleweed sections of his own songs. But soon we are into unfamiliar territory again, as Hagerty introduces a melody that is totally unique and could have gone somewhere, but is replaced immediately with some what-ifs about plucked strings and how they would sound against brief, distorted glam rock guitars. They sound great. But it is exhausting.
On Wilson Semiconductors, Hagerty’s guitars work like dogs to coin new rock clichés that don’t even exist yet. There just aren’t many out there these days who make guitars earn their keep like this by teasing out new sounds from them. But although Hagerty’s mercurial inventiveness is occasionally electrifying, it’s not clear who will have the patience to comb through experiments that generally fall flat. Back in the days of Royal Trux, Hagerty and Co. could write songs like “Blue is the Frequency,” which transposed 60s folk rock into unlikely atonal keys while still retaining the filthy feel of their rock idols. Now, the spectacle of The Howling Hex gives more clues about what to avoid than what is possible.